Nell Irvin Painter

Creating Black Americans

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Creating Black Americans Summary

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Creating Black Americans: African American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present is a book of history written by Ivy League scholar and historian Nell Irvin Painter, who sought to create a representation of the development of African American culture in the United States from the transatlantic slave trade to the present day. The book was published in 2006, and includes a number of notable images, candid photos, and paintings by black artists with accompanying analysis to demonstrate the ways that black Americans have historically created and represented their own history. Though digestible for everyday readers, the book is primarily written for classrooms.

Painter’s goal is to move through years of African American history while dismantling some myths of American history, particularly in relation to black culture. Beginning in 1619, Painter discusses the effect of the transatlantic slave trade and its development in both North America and South America, compiling research from a number of historians and scholars in the field. She then moves into slavery in America, and discusses a number of common misconceptions – including the idea that slavery was only a problem in the southern United States. Painter discusses the ways that slavery funded America in the 18th century. Slaves grew the crops that fed Americans, and also grew tobacco and cotton for export, bringing in money to the burgeoning nation. Though this work was primarily done in the south, northern institutions relied on slave money to thrive – Painter names Bank of America and a number of other banks that were essentially developed on the backs of black slavery.

Painter discussing a number of notable African American thinkers, writers, and painters who either created work during this era or represented the era through painting and other forms of visual art. One example is her inclusion of the narrative of Olaudah Equiano, one of the first slaves shipped from Africa who was able to document his experience working on plantations as an enslaved man. Painter’s focus is on allowing black Americans to tell the story of their own history as often as possible, and her inclusion of art allows frequently ignored or unknown voices to rise up and become part of the larger historical narrative.

Moving into the Civil War and Emancipation, Painter makes it clear that Abraham Lincoln was not always or only the “Great Emancipator,” and rejects the viewpoint of many Southern thinkers who reject the centrality of slavery to the issues that sparked the Civil War. Painter talks about the denial of white Northerners, who thought of the conflict as a “white man’s war” until Fredrick Douglass and other black abolitionists made it clear that without emancipation the conflict was moot. After some persuasion, Lincoln allowed black men to join the troops, and during the Civil War more than 200,000 black soldiers enlisted for the Union. Still, Painter uses the Civil War as a starting point to discuss the discrimination, violence, and inequity that black soldiers experienced during American wars throughout history.

Painter also includes a number of photographs, staged and candid, which contribute to the narrative of black community development during and after the Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights movement, and the work of prominent black thinkers and activists like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. She also makes a point to talk about Black Nationalism and the impulse that black Americans have to protest – addressing some of the misunderstandings that often arise around the ideas of Black Nationalism, and also discussing some of the factors that lead to this kind of thinking among black citizens.

Finally, Painter takes her narrative of black culture and history up to the modern day, and discusses hip-hop and its influence, as well as ongoing political issues that affect primarily African Americans – issues like access to health care, mass incarceration, the war on drugs, and voting rights in the 2000 presidential election and beyond.

Nell Irvin Painter is a historian of primarily Southern history, and worked at Princeton for most of her academic career. She was educated at Harvard and the University of California Berkeley, and returned to study at Rutgers to receive a Bachelors of Fine Arts and an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design later in her career. She wrote a memoir about this experience, entitled Old in Art School. Among her books are a number of scholarly texts, including Southern History Across the Color Line and The History of White People. She has also written about Sojourner Truth and Hosea Hudson, a black Communist and labor leader in the American south.